District attorney doesn't back down from relationship with aide
Franklin – District Attorney Ashley Welch is not backing down from a leaked internet video that depicts her in a romantic relationship with her former chief aide, but she is adamant that it did not impede the operation of the District 30 prosecutors’ office.
A video shot in February 2017 by a blogger that is making the rounds on social media shows Welch and former chief assistant district attorney Eric Bellas kissing at a rest stop parking lot in Alamance County.
Davin Eldridge of the Trappalachia blog said Tuesday that while he did post the video, he did not shoot it.
“I don’t want to discuss my personal life, but I will say that I am human. I am not perfect,” Welch said. “But I have not lied. This was not illegal, and it was not an ethical breach under N.C. Bar Association rules.
“I am a public official, and people have the right to question me, but this had nothing to do with the execution of my job.”
Bellas’ last day working for District 30 was June 11, when Maria De Los Angeles Brickman was acquitted of murder charges in Cherokee County. Bellas was the lead prosecutor in that case.
Welch cited personnel confidentiality regarding whether Bellas was dismissed or left on his own. However, Bellas made an appointment to speak with the Cherokee Scout on June 12, the day after his employment ended, which he later canceled.
“We respect the jury’s decision, but we believe we had the evidence to convict on the charge of murder,” Welch said later that week. “Obviously, we were disappointed.”
Other issues with Bellas’ job performance have emerged publicly in recent weeks.
A report in the Aug. 23 edition of The Graham Star detailed at least two cases that were mishandled due to communication gaps between Bellas and Welch. In that report, the DA admitted that her office mishandled the Lora Orr murder case, but she also did not apologize to Graham County Sheriff Danny Millsaps for criticizing his handling of it.
In February, less than 24 hours after Lora Orr was found shot to death, Millsaps asked Bellas to charge Garrel Alva Orr with murder. Bellas refused and ordered the suspect released.
Welch not only supported Bellas’ decision, she blasted Millsaps in print for wanting “to arrest an individual for a very serious crime without beginning to investigate the case.” She then criticized Millsaps with a pointed guest column in The Star.
“I probably would have authorized a murder charge on Orr that night, but my opinion of the sheriff and my editorial I still stand behind completely,” Welch said.
Six months later, Welch took another look at the case and filed first-degree murder charges against Garrel Orr – the very charge Millsaps recommended in February.
‘Told not to call me’
Welch also accused Bellas of mishandling the 2016 dispute in which neighbors Joe Shaffer and James Jay Smith shot each other. Neither man was arrested then, but Welch’s office recently filed attempted first-degree murder and deadly assault charges against Smith.
Welch said Thursday she was not intentionally misled by Bellas, but there was a communication problem in Graham County. She added that Bellas apparently told Graham County officials not to call her directly and to deal only with him.
“I never got a call from anyone in law enforcement in Graham County on these cases because they were told not to call me,” Welch said. “If this had happened in Cherokee County, Sheriff (Derrick) Palmer would have picked up the phone and called me personally. But they were told not to do that, which I did not know.”
Bellas did not respond to phone and text messages seeking comment on this report.
“He was my chief assistant, and I trusted him,” Welch said. “I was not given all the information, and I did not review those files myself. That’s on me because I am the elected district attorney. I have made some changes in my level of hands-on interaction on some of these cases and insisted on more information being shared with me by my assistants.”
Welch said Bellas did not receive any special treatment in her office because of their relationship.
‘No reason to doubt’
Welch went through a contentious divorce before entering into the relationship with Bellas, who was separated from his wife at the time.
Welch said she believes the video was shot by someone she prosecuted in 2010, when she was an assistant district attorney. She also asserted that whoever took the video followed her across the state to capture it.
Welch is running unopposed for re-election in November. She said the revelation of this video will have no impact on District 30 going forward.
A week before the video was shot, Welch and Bellas successfully tried drug kingpin Brodie Hamilton, who was found guilty and received a 70-year sentence in a massive trafficking operation.
“I have no reason to doubt my record and what I have done in this district,” Welch said. “We have sent more people to prison in this district than it has ever seen.”
Gary Corsair of The Graham Star contributed to this report.